Posted on April 2, 2022

France’s Far Right Turn

Elisabeth Zerofsky, New York Times, March 31, 2022

With only one month to go until France’s presidential election in April, the office of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party the National Rally, sent the usual Sunday email outlining her schedule for the coming week as “candidate for the presidency of the Republic.” Unfortunately for Le Pen, many of its recipients were at that moment en route to a rally for her rival, where several formerly trusted members of her inner circle would fill the front row. Ever since Éric Zemmour, a far-right pundit and former newspaper columnist, declared his own candidacy for president last November, members of Le Pen’s party had been departing in a steady trickle for his. And yet there was something particularly plaintive in Le Pen’s notification. A final defection was expected that day — that of her niece, Marion Maréchal, quite likely spelling the end of Le Pen and of her party’s hold over the far right.

Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory as an independent five years ago shook up France’s multiparty system. As parties on the right and left fractured and regrouped, the National Rally remained largely constant. Now Zemmour and Maréchal’s alliance, with its “anti-wokisme” and its appeals to anti-immigrant sentiments, has forged a revanchist politics that captures a notable shift in the public mood. As the far right enjoys its greatest cultural primacy in France in 75 years, it is Zemmour and his followers, not the National Rally, who are defining the future of the French right wing, even if no one expects him — or any other right-wing candidate — to wrest the presidency from Macron.

For the last half-century, French nationalism has operated as a family business. Marine’s father (Maréchal’s grandfather), Jean-Marie Le Pen, helped found the party, which until recently was known as the National Front, in 1972 and led it until Marine took over in 2011. In 1992, Maréchal appeared in a campaign poster as a startled blond toddler held aloft in her grandfather’s arms. Twenty years later, Maréchal was elected to the National Assembly as a representative of the party. At 22, she was the youngest member of Parliament in the history of the modern French Republic.  {snip}


On that early March Sunday, Maréchal chose to announce her support for Zemmour and his party, Reconquête (Reconquest), in Toulon, a small, luminous city with an important naval base on the French Riviera. I had previously attended Zemmour’s rallies only in the north of France, and those were high-security affairs, where the gendarmerie marked off a wide perimeter around the venue and formed riot lines behind the barriers against potentially violent protesters. In the south, you could walk freely up to the entrance of the stadium. Cliques of young people streamed across town to the arena, joining the other well-dressed attendees — tailored coats, red Dockers, boat shoes, in sharp contrast to a National Rally event, where black leather jackets and tattoos are the norm. Zemmour, who is 63, had no prior political experience, but as a best-selling author he was used to giving sold-out book talks and knew how to make people feel as if they were at an exclusive event.

Maréchal left the National Rally in 2017, taking time out from politics to work in the private sector. There had long been reports that she was being sidelined, partly because her popularity was seen as a threat, but also because her positions differed from the party line. Still, her retreat from the National Rally was based on a calculation shared by many: that her aunt, having lost in the two previous presidential elections, was incapable of winning. As Zemmour’s candidacy evolved, it became clear that a primary goal was to end Marine Le Pen’s control over far-right politics in France, by breaking through the cordon sanitaire that the mainstream political establishment had erected around the Le Pen family for decades, and ultimately to remake the French right.

Le Pen, who is 53, has positioned herself as an economic populist, seeking to attract working-class voters from across the political spectrum, caring little if they identify as right or left. Zemmour and Maréchal reject not only the tactic but also the principle behind it. Conservatism, they assert, is still an organizing social force, reflecting a timeless understanding of how we live. In a world of liberal overreach, they believe, the appeal of their hard reactionism is broader than ever. “Despite everything, these currents continue to direct French political life,” Maréchal told me. “In people’s minds, it’s the nation, authority, family, heritage, preservation. Broadly speaking, that’s our identity.” {snip}

In France, political identities tend to coalesce around views of the past and, on the right in particular, around the father of modern France, Charles de Gaulle. Some of the original members of the National Front collaborated during World War II with Nazi Germany, as de Gaulle fought from exile to liberate the country. And in the 1970s, one of the party’s founding principles was a rejection of de Gaulle’s decision as president to withdraw France from colonial Algeria. This history has always put the National Rally at odds with the urban conservative bourgeoisie, which sees itself as heir to the Gaullist tradition — nationalist, out of an old-fashioned sense of pride and duty; republican, despite a certain nostalgia for the aristocracy — and would never vote for a Le Pen. These are Zemmour’s people, and increasingly, despite her lineage, Maréchal’s.

Maréchal, who has continued to dodge precise questions about her political future as she campaigns full-time for Zemmour, is sometimes called the “fantasy” of the right, a double entendre that captures her political currency and symbolic importance. One meaning refers to what some regard as her unique potential to draw the bourgeois voters that have flocked to Zemmour and the working-class voters that back Marine Le Pen, both of which are needed to win. The other is usually invoked obliquely, with the word “photogenic.” {snip}


During last fall’s primaries, nearly 40 percent of French voters expressed a preference for a candidate promoting far-right ideas. Remarkably, nearly everyone I spoke with agreed, more or less, on how France had arrived at this point. “If public opinion is at this level, it’s because Zemmour has been talking about it for such a long time,” Erik Tegnér, a 28-year-old who runs Livre Noir, a new right-wing media outlet on YouTube, told me.

Like their American counterparts, Zemmour and Maréchal like to denounce the liberalism of cultural institutions, namely the media and academia. Paradoxically, they cite Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, and his theory of “cultural hegemony” to explain how beliefs expressed by the ruling class trickle down to become cultural norms. They have taken up the battle of ideas within mainstream institutions with zeal. Zemmour, the son of North African Jewish immigrants, has long had a platform from which to trumpet the importance of assimilation and being French: He was formerly a columnist at France’s most important conservative daily newspaper, Le Figaro, as well as a longtime TV talk-show host and a regular radio commentator. In 2019, he was given a prime-time spot on CNews, the Fox News-like channel owned by the magnate Vincent Bolloré.

Last October, CNews invited Renaud Camus, the source of the “grand remplacement,” or “great replacement,” conspiracy theory (which has been picked up across the Atlantic by commentators like Tucker Carlson), onto its Sunday evening show. Camus’s argument holds that the white French population is being replaced by a nonwhite, non-French population. “More and more these last few years, thinkers and polemicists, people with a huge impact, have contributed to an opening of what we call the Overton window,” Tegnér said, referring to a shift in what’s considered acceptable discourse. D’Ornellas, of Valeurs Actuelles, agreed, pointing out that 15 years ago, the term “ ‘identity’ was absolutely a dirty word. Now it’s pretty much normal to talk about it.”

Some of this shift in French public life can be traced to the Islamist terror attacks that have devastated France, beginning in 2015. In January of that year, 12 people were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which regularly published cartoons of Muhammad, by two brothers who regarded these depictions as violations of the Islamic strictures forbidding representations of the prophet. Ten months later, a group of young Muslim men, many of whom had traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State, staged a coordinated assault on the Bataclan concert hall and other venues in and around Paris that left 130 people dead. In the emotional aftermath, there was a public outcry about young Muslims not integrating into French society.

Many of those “who were supposed to be on the left decided that fighting for the Republic, for laïcité, goes beyond right and left,” says Éric Fassin, a sociologist at the University of Paris 8 and a frequent left-wing commentator. Prominent left-leaning intellectuals formed a collective to battle Islamist extremism. This was to be done, they argued, by reinforcing the principle of laïcité, commonly translated as “secularism,” the French legal doctrine that protects private religious practice from state interference — and that, since the 1980s, as French Muslims became a more visible public presence, has been interpreted to mean that public life should be free from overt religious expression.

Fassin argues that in recent decades, ostensibly left-leaning governments have taken up these battles and allied themselves with the right. Last fall, Macron’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, founded the Laboratory of the Republic, a government-organized think tank meant to further the ideals of laïcité, proclaiming that “The veil itself is not desirable in French society” and decrying “le wokisme” as an American import. In 2013, Manuel Valls, interior minister to the Socialist president François Hollande, called for systematically deporting Roma, who are European Union citizens, from the country. Under Valls, the state was successfully sued for racial profiling in policing, but Valls appealed the decision by arguing that the practice was justified because Black people and Arabs are more likely to be foreign and therefore in the country illegally. This is not so far from what Zemmour was saying, Fassin noted. (In 2011, Zemmour was convicted in court of incitement to racial hatred for stating on TV that the police disproportionately stop minorities because “most dealers are Blacks and Arabs.”) Fassin went on: “So if we want to understand why Zemmour can say what he’s saying, you have to look at that.”

The left claimed upholding laïcité was necessary to oppose Islamist extremism, while the right stopped pretending that laïcité was neutral at all. Conservatives like Zemmour openly use the doctrine as a tool to delegitimize Islam. He tells his audiences that under his presidency, he would “not want to hear the voice of the muezzin,” the person who issues the Islamic call to prayer, while simultaneously extolling France’s “Christian heritage.” Part of the waning enthusiasm for Marine Le Pen has been because of her insistence that “Islam doesn’t have the right to express itself in the public sphere, but neither does Christianity,” de Guillebon, now the editor of the right-wing magazine L’Incorrect, told me.

As leftist politicians have shifted rightward, the right has become practically indistinguishable from the far right. In early November, Les Républicains, the supposedly center-right mainstream party, held its first primary debate. Opening a segment on immigration, the moderator asked the candidates if they would use the term “grand remplacement.” Some hesitated, but not a single candidate dismissed the idea. “Sixty-seven percent of the French use it,” Éric Ciotti, a member of Parliament from the south, which tends to be more conservative, said with a shrug. “It’s useless to deny reality.” The moderator continued to press the point: Was France witnessing the replacement of one population by another population? “I don’t like that expression,” Michel Barnier, the former Brexit negotiator for the E.U., said, but he allowed that the French sometimes had a feeling of no longer being “at home.” Valérie Pécresse, who went on to win the nomination of Les Républicains, said she didn’t like the phrase because it “implies that we’re already screwed.”


Maréchal and Zemmour have long proselytized for what they call the union des droites, the joining of disparate right-wing factions behind a single leader. This could happen either by fusing the center-right party and far-right parties, though that is considered highly unlikely, or, more probably, by joining the most right-wing voters of the center to those on the far right.

Polling suggests that the way to appeal to all conservative voters, urban and bourgeois as well as working class, is by talking about, or more precisely railing against, immigration. This is something that Zemmour has always done. He is an ideologue, and he built his career on a singular obsession. It is hard to say what is electoral strategy and what is Zemmour being Zemmour.

Most of the supporters I’ve spoken to at Zemmour’s events since last fall have tried to convince me that he is a mainstream conservative, as if by virtue of not being a Le Pen, he couldn’t possibly be on the far right. In reality, Zemmour is one of the most prominent promoters of grand remplacement. He has asked whether “young French people will accept to live as a minority on the land of their ancestors,” a concern Maréchal shares. Recently, she noted that it was possible that “in 2060 the historic native people could be minorities on French territory.” Maréchal told me that the identity question is central to the election, that “for the French it is a vital question, they feel it in their flesh, a vital threat that gives them anxiety.” She explained that it was “because they have the feeling that in several years France will no longer be France, because the population will have largely changed, it will be majority-Muslim, it will no longer be France as we’ve known it.” She went on: “Often, Muslim women who wear the full-body veil or burqa are reproached: ‘If you want so much to live like in Afghanistan or in Iraq, then go live in Afghanistan or Iraq.’

“This kind of provocation,” she continued, “gives the French the feeling that they’re trying to impose a foreign culture, against the most basic traditions, the visibility of the face in public, and the equality of men and women. So, if you want to attack that on the pretext of individual liberty, it’s an insult to what we are, to our way of life, to our country.”


The French electoral system is set up in such a way that Zemmour almost certainly cannot win. If no candidate gains an outright majority in the first round of voting, the two top candidates move on to a second round of voting, in which the winner must clear 50 percent. It is highly unlikely that Zemmour, or any far-right candidate, can cross that threshold. But he may accomplish his goals nonetheless. The real reason for Zemmour’s candidacy, Lejeune, the editor of Valeurs Actuelles, told me, was to lay the foundation for a future movement. The defections from Le Pen’s party were happening because “they think that even if Zemmour loses, Le Pen is going to lose no matter what,” Lejeune told me. “So he will leave behind a base that’s much more inclusive than the National Front on its own.” Pécresse’s center-right party has also been sinking in the polls and is at risk of becoming obsolete. Which makes it even more likely that Zemmour and Maréchal, whether she runs again for public office or not, and regardless of vote tallies, are setting the tone for whatever comes next.